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Smithsburg native turns UNLV around

Schlossnagle has Rebels' baseball team in spotlight with No. 15 national ranking

Schlossnagle has Rebels' baseball team in spotlight with No. 15 national ranking

May 29, 2003|By BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

In Jim Schlossnagle's experience, success is a combination of hard work, opportunity and circumstances all meeting in the right place at the right time.

It used to be a firm belief but now he is living it.

The Smithsburg native used his belief to make a gamble and hit the jackpot - in, of all places, Las Vegas - by becoming the head baseball coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) and turning a program with four straight losing seasons into one of the nation's new powers in less than two years.

But even though Schlossnagle has helped to orchestrate the turnaround, he's the first to admit the success is a matter of hard work meeting opportunity and circumstances in the right place at the right time.

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"The realism of it all is that I was lucky to inherit a good core group of local players and then we were able to recruit the program outside of the area," Schlossnagle said. "Anyone can teach the game, but you can't be an Xs and Os coach on the Division I level. The toughest thing we had to do was change the expectation of winning."

Schlossnagle has used his experience and professional upbringing to turn the Rebels around 180 degrees.

After playing to a 30-30 record last season and a fifth-place finish in the Mountain West Conference, UNLV is ranked No. 15 in the country by Baseball America. The Rebels are 45-15 overall and won their first conference regular-season title by six games with a 24-6 record.

Last weekend, the Rebels swept to the conference tournament title and earned a berth in the Tempe Regional in this weekend's 64-team NCAA baseball tournament, which could eventually end in one of eight berths in next month's College World Series. UNLV opens the tournament on Friday at 4 p.m. EDT when it plays New Mexico State.

"It doesn't surprise me because I knew we would be competitive in the league," Schlossnagle said. "But to win 70 percent of our games in the first two years, I couldn't have predicted that."

Schlossnagle had confidence the Rebels could play. It was up to the Rebels to realize it.

He said they began to believe when they played Cal State Fullerton, then the No. 1 team in the country. After losing by 20 and 13 runs in the first two meetings, the Rebels won the third matchup, 8-5.

"It was only our ninth game of the season, but that was the turning point," Schlossnagle said. "I had been telling them that they could play with them, but experience comes from doing it. I could tell them, but they had to prove it to themselves."

From that point, UNLV gained amazing confidence, going 10-2 in one-run games and winning a number of games in come-from-behind fashion, including the Mountain West Conference championship game.

Schlossnagle knows a little about turning points. After graduating from Smithsburg High School, Schlossnagle attended Elon College and had his playing career cut short by injury. He turned the bad break into a positive by becoming a student assistant and later an assistant coach.

Later, he was hired by Rick Jones at Tulane University, where he acted as the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator before trying for the UNLV job.

Schlossnagle saw a little bit of Tulane in UNLV when he applied for the position.

"This is a great city with a recognizable name that has great weather," Schlossnagle said. "We play in a great facility that seats 3,000 fans. When I came here, I said this was a do-over, not a rebuilding project. It was similar to Tulane (in New Orleans). That's what I sold in my interview for the job."

Schlossnagle impressed John Robinson, UNLV's athletic director and football coach. Robinson has worked from a similar angle, drawing from his former days as the head coach at Southern California and later the Los Angeles Rams.

The work and formula that Schlossnagle brought with him has made UNLV baseball an accepted part of the Las Vegas sports scene.

"It has definitely changed to become more positive in the media," Schlossnagle said. "We are getting feature stories written on us twice a week and we are getting TV coverage. This is a tough town to catch some attention."

That attention will jump this weekend at the Tempe Regional. UNLV is second seeded in the double-elimination tournament, behind top seed and host team, Arizona State.

The Sun Devils, rated No. 5 by Baseball America, faces Central Connecticut State in its opener.

The winner in Tempe advances to the 16-team Super Regional to play a best-of-3 series to decide which eight teams advance to the College World Series.

"We are ready to go," Schlossnagle said. "I think we are good enough to win the region if we stay on task.

"I was telling my wife that this was kind of weird. This year, we watched the tournament selection show at the ESPN Zone. Last year, I watched it by myself on a small television in my office."

That's because things have changed at UNLV, thanks to hard work, opportunity and circumstances all came together in the right place at the right time since Jim Schlossnagle came to town.

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